There’s no horsing around at the Indian Derby. “It’s the ultimate race for any trainer, jockey and owner. It’s the one everyone wants to win,” says veteran horse trainer Narendra Lagad.
The annual racing event by the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) is run at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Racecourse. It’s the biggest and most prestigious derby in India , akin to a Grand Slam in tennis , and has been held every year since 1943.
“The winner of the Indian Derby takes home ₹1.5 crore,” says Anit Casyab, deputy general manager for marketing and commentator at the RWITC. The winner being the owner of the horse, with 10% of winnings going to the trainer and 7.5% to the jockey. The race typically lasts less than 2 minutes and is run over 2,400 metres.
This year’s Indian Derby will be held on March 28, but where the grandstands would normally host over 25,000 people, pandemic-era restrictions have limited the crowd to 600.
“The event is open to all and tickets are available for ₹1,000 for members and ₹1,500 for non-members,” Casyab says. Multiple races are held at the 225-acre Mahalaxmi Racecourse each year, but it is the Indian Derby that attracts the most attention. The racecourse, incidentally, is built such that spectators can view the whole mile-and-a-half track from every seat.
The first Indian Derby was held in colonial India and was won by a filly owned by the Maharaja of Baroda and ridden by an Australian jockey named Edgar Britt. The filly was called Princess Beautiful.
Today’s names remain catchy and marketable. War Hammer, Super Storm, Moonlight Romance, Hall of Famer, Desert God and Be Safe are all names of horses that have won in recent times.
And while racehorse names might seem whimsical, the process is one of thoughtful discussion, personal reflection and strict adherence to the Stud Book Authority of India, which maintains a record of all thoroughbreds in the country. Rules include no repetition, for instance. “The name of a popular horse in India or abroad cannot be repeated while it is racing and at least 10 years after it has died,” says Lagad. “Some internationally protected names of classic winners can never be reused.”
A common way of naming a horse is after its dam and sire. “If the stallion is named Phoenix Star and the horse is named Lady Bird, you could name the foal Phoenix Bird or Phoenix Lady, so as to relate the horse to its pedigree,” says Lagad.
Mythical characters are another favourite, as are the hobbies and aspirations of the owner. “Then there was one owner who named his horses ‘What To Do’ and ‘What’s Cooking’,” Lagad says, laughing.
If quirky names are a tradition on the track, so is superstition. Helping the jockey get a leg up, patting a horse in a very specific way, shaking hands with the groomer just before a match, or naming all your horses in only French or only three syllables are all examples of practices followed by trainers, owners and punters alike, in a sport that so often comes down to sheer chance.
“We don’t like anyone calling out to us from behind, some trainers don’t like anyone cutting across them once they’re in the saddle,” Lagad says. There are often lucky suits, ties and socks preserved carefully for racing days.
“In my 15 years of being in the sport as an official, the strangest practice I’ve seen is a jockey in Kolkata always praying to a particular tree before mounting his horse,” Casyab says.
It’s always the last 100 metres that seem to change fortunes, Lagad and Casyab agree. “For example, a few years ago in Kolkata, a horse was leading by six or seven lengths and, just 100 metres away from the winning post, it ran into a railing. The jockey managed to cling to the horse’s mane, but they lost the race,” Casyab says. “That’s just how uncertain the races can be.”
AT THE RACES
* There are six racing clubs in India — all set up during colonial rule. These clubs, in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal and Delhi, together form the umbrella body Turf Authorities of India, governing India’s nine horse-racing tracks.
* The Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) is responsible for racing in Mumbai and Pune, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club for Kolkata. The Madras Race Club oversees racing in Chennai and Ooty. Then there’s the Mysore Race Club, the Bengaluru Turf Club and the Hyderabad Race Club. Racing in Delhi is conducted at the Delhi Racing Club, under the supervision and rules of the RWITC.
* Each racecourse holds to a different season. In Mumbai, races are held from November to the end of April; in Pune, from July to October. Bengaluru has three seasons. In Chennai, when it gets too hot to race in the city, the races move to Ooty.